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Higher standards need more money

25 May 2006

At last, the Government's new nutritional standards for school meals have been released. On first viewing, they seem to ring all the right bells: high-quality meat should replace low-quality meat products; fizzy drinks and chocolate are banned and deep-fried products limited; and fruit and vegetable intake must rise.

Closer inspection reveals three flies in the ointment.

First, how will caterers pay for this improvement in standards? The £220m that has been pledged for improving standards over the next three years is, according to Local Authority Caterers Association chairman Kevin Mackay, worth no more than two cherry tomatoes per child, per day - when what school caterers really need is a three-cherry jackpot if they are to change eating habits. The fact that the marketing of this funding hasn't reached every potential beneficiary doesn't help matters.

Second, what's meant by high- and low-quality meat anyway? While we don't expect our children to lunch on Wagyu beef and Gloucester Old Spot pork, where exactly does the boundary lie? Ambiguity in the small print of the standards threatens to render them meaningless.

Finally, May is a little late to be establishing targets due to come into effect in September this year. Contracts with suppliers will have been negotiated, signed and sealed, making it all but impossible for school authorities to reconsider their supply-chain needs.

Is it churlish to criticise a government that's investing hundreds of millions of pounds into supporting the wellbeing of future generations? Maybe - but unless he's prepared to stump up the full amount needed to impact real change, education secretary Alan Johnson may find school caterers mimicking that most famous of school diners, and asking: "Please, Sir, I want some more."

Mark Lewis
Editor, Caterer and Hotelkeeper

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